Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs

Wisconsin National Guard News

Are you ready for a moment's notice?

Date: September 16, 2009

Early on a March morning in 1996, the small city of Weyauwega was jolted awake by a train derailment. The hazardous cargo, including liquefied petroleum gas, propane and sodium hydroxide, caught fire and burned for more than two weeks, requiring the emergency evacuation of about 2,300 people - including the 1,700 residents of Weyauwega - for 16 days.

Jim Baehnman, Weyauwega fire chief, called that accident "the safest disaster in American history," in large part because there were no injuries or deaths resulting from the derailment or evacuation. Still, if such an event were to happen today, he would do some things differently.

The evacuation was gradual, as Baehnman and other emergency responders realized the complexity of the situation and the extent of the danger to residents. But everyone was given the same set of instructions: Leave in 15 minutes. Nobody was told to bring anything, as initially no one anticipated the evacuation would last as long as it did.

Click To View High-Resolution Photo
Click To View High-Resolution Photo

A Wisconsin National Guardsman holds Carolyn Paul's dog, Subree, after the pet was rescued in Weyauwega in March, 1996. Residents evacuated after propane-filled railcars derailed in the town. Operation Pet Rescue began when the weather turned cold and the crisis clearly would not end soon some residents couldn't return to their homes for nearly a month. Photo by Steve Apps, courtesy Appleton Post-Crescent

"As we found out later, that was a big mistake," Baehnman acknowledged.

Residents left without identification, without pets, and without medications. As the days wore on, the lack of these items went from an inconvenience to a serious concern. Baehnman said a pet rescue effort was organized with the assistance of the Wisconsin National Guard, but some residents retrieved their pets before the official effort began, making it unclear if all residents were still obeying the evacuation order. Doctors and pharmacists were contacted to refill needed prescriptions, but this took some time. Some residents left without money, and others had difficulty doing business of any sort without personal identification available.

"We came up with the 'Three P's,'" Baehnman said. "Pets, pills and purse - if you have to leave, don't leave without those."

Lori Getter, crisis communications manager for Wisconsin Emergency Management, recommends adding a fourth "P" - papers, as in important documents.

"In most cases, you'll be out of your home for a few hours, but you never know," Getter said. "The best thing is to plan for three days."

She strongly recommends families and individuals prepare an emergency kit. This kit should include at least a three-day supply of food and water, cash, flashlight with batteries, first aid kit, a whistle to signal for help, a dust mask, plastic bags with toilet paper and moist towelettes for sanitation, blankets or a sleeping bag, a wrench to turn off utilities, maps, extra medications and food for pets or service animals, extra medications and prescriptions, copies of important documents such as medical, family and insurance records in a waterproof pouch, and extra eyeglasses or hearing aids.

Getter said that evacuations may occur during the middle of the night, when most pharmacies are closed. She added that most emergency shelters don't accept pets, and urged pet owners to plan in advance where their pets can go in the event of an evacuation. Even pets can benefit from an emergency kit, she said, that contains pet food and toys, any medication the pet may be taking, leashes and copies of veterinarian records.

Baehnman noted that the extended evacuation proved to be a hardship for residents, some of whom were evacuated twice when the residence they initially sought shelter in came under the expanding danger zone. Many were concerned about home damage due to water and gas lines being turned off in the city.

"It may not be so easy to get people to leave as it was last time," he said.

Getter pointed out that there are an average of 500 chemical spills in Wisconsin each year. While not all such accidents result in evacuations, usually they occur without warning. One benefit from the Weyauwega derailment was learning what worked and what needed to be improved, Baehnman said.

"If you've never experienced it, you don't know what to expect," he explained. "If you have, it helps guide your planning for the future."

Preparation is key to a safe getaway. Are you ready, Wisconsin?

For further information, contact Wisconsin Emergency Management at 608-242-3239.

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